Mind The Gap | Women leaders of India and the world
THE BIG STORY
Priyanka’s great gamble
Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s promise to field 40% women candidates in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly election has sparked hope in a political landscape stubbornly dominated by men.
Priyanka’s announcement goes against the grain of the Congress’s own shabby record, write Gilles Vernier and Avishek Jha. Only 268 of 2,839 Congress candidates — just 9.4% — who have contested a state election since 2017 were women. That’s a long way off from the Congress’s public commitment to 33% in assemblies and Parliament.
Why it matters: Certainly, the earmarking of such a large number of seats in a significant assembly election by a mainstream political party is unprecedented. In 2019, Odisha chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, and West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, had fielded 33% and 42% women candidates respectively in the parliamentary elections. State elections are different because there is a greater connect between candidates and their constituencies and, therefore, less incentive to experiment, says Gilles Vernier, co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University.
Women count: Priyanka’s announcement comes at a time when women voters are turning out in record numbers, even outnumbering men voters in states like Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur. But the moot question: Do women voters vote for women candidates?
“There is no simplistic causal relationship,” says Vernier. In the last West Bengal election, for instance, women voted so overwhelmingly for Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress that “it would be accurate to say women defeated the BJP,” says Vernier. But women also vote for parties that do poorly in terms of fielding women candidates, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), for instance.
On the other hand: UP is essentially a low-stake election for the Congress that won only seven of the 114 seats it contested in the 2017 assembly elections. Other questions remain: Will the Congress be as generous to women candidates in other forthcoming elections in Punjab and Jharkhand? Will it find enough women — and not just daughters, wives, and proxies of powerful men — to contest in UP? Vadra seemed unfazed. If it were up to her, she would field 50% women, she said at the press conference to announce the move. And if they lose? “We’ll field them again. If not this time, they’ll be stronger next time.”
And yet: Despite the caveats, Priyanka’s announcement is a welcome move that “puts pressure on the whole ecosystem,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, a pressure group dedicated to improving women’s political representation. It marks the first step towards improving representative democracy, she said. More significantly, she said, it improves democracy.
THE BACK STORY
Over 700 Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumni have written a letter to the authorities in IIT (Guwahati) asking for an uncompromising stand on gender-based violence, reports Utpal Parashar.
Earlier this year, the institute was in the news for all the wrong reasons following a rape that is said to have taken place on campus. On the night of March 28, a 19-year-old second-year female student was found unconscious outside her hostel. She was taken to the hospital nearly two hours later where a medical examination supposedly found evidence of sexual assault following the administration of a drug.
IIT-Guwahati issued a statement describing an “unfortunate incident involving a female student” and set up a fact-finding committee. That committee submitted its report on April 2 and a day later, the prime accused, Utsav Kadam, was arrested, and four other students questioned for their involvement in the crime, especially the deliberate delay in calling for medical help in an apparent cover-up. On April 4, Kadam was suspended from IIT-Guwahati.
But while granting him bail in August, high court judge Ajit Borthakur observed that although there was a clear prima facie case against him, he and the woman student were “talented students” and the “state’s future assets”. The judge’s gratuitous observation led to an uproar, bringing to mind another comment made in 2017 by the Punjab and Haryana High Court observations while granting bail to three former students of the OP Jindal Global University convicted of gang-raping a fellow student. The two-judge bench of Justices Mahesh Grover and Raj Shekhar Atri suspended the earlier conviction while noting that the rape survivor was “promiscuous” and had “casual sexual encounters”.
The IIT-Guwahati alumni letter comes as a grim reminder that institutions, including the judiciary, have to do better while assuring timely justice to rape survivors. This does not include the passing of “stray” comments on either the accused’s supposed value to society or the survivor’s past sexual history.
IIT-Guwahati finally expelled Utsav Kadam in September.
Making the news: The overall percentage of women in the news as subjects and sources in India fell from 21% in 2015 to 14% in 2020 across print, TV, and radio.
Source: Who Makes the News by the Global Media Monitoring Project (read the report here).
Chennai Express: With the swearing-in of four new judges, including one woman, on October 20, the Madras High Court now has 13 women judges, the most for any high court in the country.
"I hope many widows like me get justice. If we remain silent, then no one will come forward to help"
These words were said by Vimla Govind, the wife of a sanitation worker who died cleaning in 2019 after entering a septic tank in Mumbai, after the Bombay High Court ordered financial compensation of ₹10 lakh each to her and two other women whose husbands died that day.
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Workforce: Women comprise over half of 40 million workers of the country’s informal economy who registered on a recently launched national portal, reports Zia Haq. There is no official data on the numbers employed by the unorganised sector, but it is believed that 91% of women in paid jobs are in the informal sector.
Officers: The Supreme Court told the government to grant permanent commission to 39 of 72 women officers before November 1, writes Abraham Thomas.
Juvenile offenders: Three boys aged between eight and 11, apparently addicted to watching porn on their phones, killed a six-year-old girl after she resisted their attempts to sexually assault her in Assam’s Nagaon district, reports Utpal Parashar.
WOMEN OF THE WORLD
Najla Bouden Ramadhane, a 63-year-old engineering professor, was appointed Tunisia’s prime minister, a first for the Arab world. The move follows July’s “coup” when President Kais Saied seized most powers, leaving questions as to how much real power the prime minister will wield.
Barbados has just elected Dame Sandra Mason to be its first-ever president as it prepares to become a republic. Dame Sandra has been governor-general of her country since 2018.
That’s it for this week. If you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you would like to share write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Namita Bhandare writes and reports on gender
The views expressed are personal
Marika Gabriel contributed to the making of this page.